RED LETTER DAY
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Kristine Kathryn Rusch is an American writer of award-winning mystery, romance, science fiction, and fantasy. She has written many novels under various names. Her novels have made the bestseller lists worldwide and have been published in fourteen countries and thirteen different languages. Her awards range from the Ellery Queen Readers Choice Award to the John W. Campbell Award. She is the only person in the history of the science fiction field to have won a Hugo Award both for editing and for fiction. “Red Letter Day” was originally published in Analog Science Fiction and Fact in 2010.
Graduation rehearsal – middle of the afternoon on the final Monday of the final week of school. The graduating seniors at Barack Obama High School gather in the gymnasium, get the wrapped packages with their robes (ordered long ago), their mortarboards, and their blue and white tassels. The tassels attract the most attention – everyone wants to know which side of the mortarboard to wear it on, and which side to move it to.
The future hovers, less than a week away, filled with possibilities.
Possibilities about to be limited, because it’s also Red Letter Day.
I stand on the platform, near the steps, not too far from the exit. I’m wearing my best business casual skirt today and a blouse that I no longer care about. I learned to wear something I didn’t like years ago; too many kids will cry on me by the end of the day, covering the blouse with slobber and makeup and aftershave.
My heart pounds. I’m a slender woman, although I’m told I’m formidable. Coaches need to be formidable. And while I still coach the basketball teams, I no longer teach gym classes because the folks in charge decided I’d be a better counselor than gym teacher. They made that decision on my first Red Letter Day at BOHS, more than twenty years ago.
I’m the only adult in this school who truly understands how horrible Red Letter Day can be. I think it’s cruel that Red Letter Day happens at all, but I think the cruelty gets compounded by the fact that it’s held in school.
Red Letter Day should be a holiday, so that kids are at home with their parents when the letters arrive.
Or don’t arrive, as the case may be.
And the problem is that we can’t even properly prepare for Red Letter Day. We can’t read the letters ahead of time: privacy laws prevent it.
So do the strict time travel rules. One contact – only one – through an emissary, who arrives shortly before rehearsal, stashes the envelopes in the practice binders, and then disappears again. The emissary carries actual letters from the future. The letters themselves are the old-fashioned paper kind, the kind people wrote 150 years ago, but write rarely now. Only the real letters, handwritten, on special paper get through. Real letters, so that the signatures can be verified, the paper guaranteed, the envelopes certified.
Apparently, even in the future, no one wants to make a mistake.
The binders have names written across them so the letter doesn’t go to the wrong person. And the letters are supposed to be deliberately vague.
I don’t deal with the kids who get letters. Others are here for that, some professional bullshitters – at least in my opinion. For a small fee, they’ll examine the writing, the signature, and try to clear up the letter’s deliberate vagueness, make a guess at the socio-economic status of the writer, the writer’s health, or mood.
I think that part of Red Letter Day makes it all a scam. But the schools go along with it, because the counselors (read: me) are busy with the kids who get no letter at all.
And we can’t predict whose letter won’t arrive. We don’t know until the kid stops mid-stride, opens the binder, and looks up with complete and utter shock.
Either there’s a red envelope inside or there’s nothing.
And we don’t even have time to check which binder is which.
* * *
I had my Red Letter Day thirty-two years ago, in the chapel of Sister Mary of Mercy High School in Shaker Heights, Ohio. Sister Mary of Mercy was a small co-ed Catholic High School, closed now, but very influential in its day. The best private school in Ohio according to some polls – controversial only because of its conservative politics and its willingness to indoctrinate its students.
I never noticed the indoctrination. I played basketball so well that I already had three full-ride scholarship offers from UCLA, UNLV, and Ohio State (home of the Buckeyes!). A pro scout promised I’d be a fifth round draft choice if only I went pro straight out of high school, but I wanted an education.
“You can get an education later,” he told me. “Any good school will let you in after you’ve made your money and had your fame.”
But I was brainy. I had studied athletes who went to the Bigs straight out of high school. Often they got injured, lost their contracts and their money, and never played again. Usually they had to take some crap job to pay for their college education – if, indeed, they went to college at all, which most of them never did.
Those who survived lost most of their earnings to managers, agents, and other hangers-on. I knew what I didn’t know. I knew I was an ignorant kid with some great ball-handling ability. I knew that I was trusting and naïve and undereducated. And I knew that life extended well beyond thirty-five, when even the most gifted female athletes lost some of their edge.
I thought a lot about my future. I wondered about life past thirty-five. My future self, I knew, would write me a letter fifteen years after thirty-five. My future self, I believed, would tell me which path to follow, what decision to make.
I thought it all boiled down to college or the pros.
I had no idea there would be – there could be – anything else.
You see, anyone who wants to – anyone who feels so inclined – can write one single letter to their former self. The letter gets delivered just before high school graduation, when most teenagers are (theoretically) adults, but still under the protection of a school.
The recommendations on writing are that the letter should be inspiring. Or it should warn that former self away from a single person, a single event, or a single choice.
The statistics say that most folks don’t warn. They like their lives as lived. The folks motivated to write the letters wouldn’t change much, if anything.
It’s only those who’ve made a tragic mistake – one drunken night that led to a catastrophic accident, one bad decision that cost a best friend a life, one horrible sexual encounter that led to a lifetime of heartache – who write the explicit letter.
And the explicit letter leads to alternate universes. Lives veer off in all kinds of different paths. The adult who sends the letter hopes their former self will take their advice. If the former self does take the advice, then the kid receives the letter from an adult they will never be. The kid, if smart, will become a different adult, the adult who somehow avoided that drunken night. That new adult will write a different letter to their former self, warning about another possibility or committing bland, vague prose about a glorious future.
There’re all kinds of scientific studies about this, all manner of debate about the consequences. All types of mandates, all sorts of rules.
And all of them lead back to that moment, that heartstopping moment that I experienced in the chapel of Sister Mary of Mercy High School, all those years ago.
We weren’t practicing graduation like the kids at Barack Obama High School. I don’t recall when we practiced graduation, although I’m sure we had a practice later in the week.
At Sister Mary of Mercy High School, we spent our Red Letter Day in prayer. All the students started their school days with Mass. But on Red Letter Day, the graduating seniors had to stay for a special service, marked by requests for God’s forgiveness and exhortations about the unnaturalness of what the law required Sister Mary of Mercy to do.
Sister Mary of Mercy High School loathed Red Letter Day. In fact, Sister Mary of Mercy High School, as an offshoot of the Catholic Church, opposed time travel altogether. Back in the dark ages (in other words, decades before I was born), the Catholic Church declared time travel an abomination, antithetical to God’s will.
You know the arguments: If God had wanted us to travel through time, the devout claim, he would have given us the ability to do so. If God had wanted us to travel through time, the scientists say, he would have given us the ability to understand time travel – and oh! Look! He’s done that.
Even now, the arguments devolve from there.
But time travel has become a fact of life for the rich and the powerful and the well-connected. The creation of alternate universes scares them less than the rest of us, I guess. Or maybe the rich really don’t care – they being different from you and I, as renowned (but little read) 20th century American author F. Scott Fitzgerald so famously said.
The rest of us – the nondifferent ones – realized nearly a century ago that time travel for all was a dicey proposition, but this being America, we couldn’t deny people the opportunity of time travel.
Eventually time travel for everyone became a rallying cry. The liberals wanted government to fund it, and the conservatives felt only those who could afford it would be allowed to have it.
Then something bad happened – something not quite expunged from the history books, but something not taught in schools either (or at least the schools I went to), and the federal government came up with a compromise.
Everyone would get one free opportunity for time travel – not that they could actually go back and see the crucifixion or the Battle of Gettysburg – but that they could travel back in their own lives.
The possibility for massive change was so great, however, that the time travel had to be strictly controlled. All the regulations in the world wouldn’t stop someone who stood in Freedom Hall in July of 1776 from telling the Founding Fathers what they had wrought.
So the compromise got narrower and narrower (with the subtext being that the masses couldn’t be trusted with something as powerful as the ability to travel through time), and it finally became Red Letter Day, with all its rules and regulations. You’d have the ability to touch your own life without ever really leaving it. You’d reach back into your own past and reassure yourself, or put something right.
Which still seemed unnatural to the Catholics, the Southern Baptists, the Libertarians, and the Stuck in Time League (always my favorite, because they never did seem to understand the irony of their own name). For years after the law passed, places like Sister Mary of Mercy High School tried not to comply with it. They protested. They sued. They got sued.
Eventually, when the dust settled, they still had to comply.
But they didn’t have to like it.
So they tortured all of us, the poor hopeful graduating seniors, awaiting our future, awaiting our letters, awaiting our fate.
I remember the prayers. I remember kneeling for what seemed like hours. I remember the humidity of that late spring day, and the growing heat, because the chapel (a historical building) wasn’t allowed to have anything as unnatural as air conditioning.
Martha Sue Groening passed out, followed by Warren Iverson, the star quarterback. I spent much of that morning with my forehead braced against the pew in front of me, my stomach in knots.
My whole life, I had waited for this moment.
And then, finally, it came. We went alphabetically, which stuck me in the middle, like usual. I hated being in the middle. I was tall, geeky, uncoordinated, except on the basketball court, and not very developed – important in high school. And I wasn’t formidable yet.
That came later.
Nope. Just a tall awkward girl, walking behind boys shorter than I was. Trying to be inconspicuous.
I got to the aisle, watching as my friends stepped in front of the altar, below the stairs where we knelt when we went up for the sacrament of communion.
Father Broussard handed out the binders. He was tall but not as tall as me. He was tending to fat, with most of it around his middle. He held the binders by the corner, as if the binders themselves were cursed, and he said a blessing over each and every one of us as we reached out for our futures.
We weren’t supposed to say anything, but a few of the boys muttered, “Sweet!” and some of the girls clutched their binders to their chests as if they’d received a love letter.
I got mine – cool and plastic against my fingers – and held it tightly. I didn’t open it, not near the stairs, because I knew the kids who hadn’t gotten theirs yet would watch me.
So I walked all the way to the doors, stepped into the hallway, and leaned against the wall.
Then I opened my binder.
And saw nothing.
My breath caught.
I peered back into the chapel. The rest of the kids were still in line, getting their binders. No red envelopes had landed on the carpet. No binders were tossed aside.
Nothing. I stopped three of the kids, asking them if they saw me drop anything or if they’d gotten mine.
Then Sister Mary Catherine caught my arm, and dragged me away from the steps. Her fingers pinched into the nerve above my elbow, sending a shooting pain down to my hand.
“You’re not to interrupt the others,” she said.
“But I must have dropped my letter.”
She peered at me, then let go of my arm. A look of satisfaction crossed her fat face, then she patted my cheek.
The pat was surprisingly tender.
“Then you are blessed,” she said.
I didn’t feel blessed. I was about to tell her that, when she motioned Father Broussard over.
“She received no letter,” Sister Mary Catherine said.
“God has smiled on you, my child,” he said warmly. He hadn’t noticed me before, but this time, he put his hand on my shoulder. “You must come with me to discuss your future.”
I let him lead me to his office. The other nuns – the ones without a class that hour – gathered with him. They talked to me about how God wanted me to make my own choices, how He had blessed me by giving me back my future, how He saw me as without sin.
I was shaking. I had looked forward to this day all my life – at least the life I could remember – and then this. Nothing. No future. No answers.
I wanted to cry, but not in front of Father Broussard. He had already segued into a discussion of the meaning of the blessing. I could serve the church. Anyone who failed to get a letter got free admission into a variety of colleges and universities, all Catholic, some well known. If I wanted to become a nun, he was certain the church could accommodate me.
“I want to play basketball, Father,” I said.
He nodded. “You can do that at any of these schools.”
“Professional basketball,” I said.
And he looked at me as if I were the spawn of Satan.
“But, my child,” he said with a less reasonable tone than before, “you have received a sign from God. He thinks you Blessed. He wants you in his service.”
“I don’t think so,” I said, my voice thick with unshed tears. “I think you made a mistake.”
Then I flounced out of his office, and off school grounds.
My mother made me go back for the last four days of class. She made me graduate. She said I would regret it if I didn’t.
I remember that much.
But the rest of the summer was a blur. I mourned my known future, worried I would make the wrong choices, and actually considered the Catholic colleges. My mother rousted me enough to get me to choose before the draft. And I did.
The University of Nevada in Las Vegas, as far from the Catholic Church as I could get.
I took my full ride, and destroyed my knee in my very first game. God’s punishment, Father Broussard said when I came home for Thanksgiving.
And God forgive me, I actually believed him.
But I didn’t transfer – and I didn’t become Job, either. I didn’t fight with God or curse God. I abandoned Him because, as I saw it, He had abandoned me.
* * *
Thirty-two years later, I watch the faces. Some flush. Some look terrified. Some burst into tears.
But some just look blank, as if they’ve received a great shock.
Those students are mine.
I make them stand beside me, even before I ask them what they got in their binder. I haven’t made a mistake yet, not even last year, when I didn’t pull anyone aside.
Last year, everyone got a letter. That happens every five years or so. All the students get Red Letters, and I don’t have to deal with anything.
This year, I have three. Not the most ever. The most ever was thirty, and within five years it became clear why. A stupid little war in a stupid little country no one had ever heard of. Twenty-nine of my students died within the decade. Twenty-nine.
The thirtieth was like me, someone who has not a clue why her future self failed to write her a letter.
I think about that, as I always do on Red Letter Day.
I’m the kind of person who would write a letter. I have always been that person. I believe in communication, even vague communication. I know how important it is to open that binder and see that bright red envelope.
I would never abandon my past self.
I’ve already composed drafts of my letter. In two weeks – on my fiftieth birthday – some government employee will show up at my house to set up an appointment to watch me write the letter.
I won’t be able to touch the paper, the red envelope or the special pen until I agree to be watched. When I finish, the employee will fold the letter, tuck it in the envelope and earmark it for Sister Mary of Mercy High School in Shaker Heights, Ohio, thirty-two years ago.
I have plans. I know what I’ll say.
But I still wonder why I didn’t say it to my previous self. What went wrong? What prevented me? Am I in an alternate universe already and I just don’t know it?
Of course, I’ll never be able to find out.
But I set that thought aside. The fact that I did not receive a letter means nothing. It doesn’t mean that I’m blessed by God any more than it means I’ll fail to live to fifty.
It is a trick, a legal sleight of hand, so that people like me can’t travel to the historical bright spots or even visit the highlights of their own past life.
I continue to watch faces, all the way to the bitter end. But I get no more than three. Two boys and a girl.
Carla Nelson. A tall, thin, white-haired blonde who ran cross-country and stayed away from basketball, no matter how much I begged her to join the team. We needed height and we needed athletic ability.
She has both, but she told me, she isn’t a team player. She wanted to run and run alone. She hated relying on anyone else.
Not that I blame her.
But from the devastation on her angular face, I can see that she relied on her future self. She believed she wouldn’t let herself down.
Over the years, I’ve watched other counselors use platitudes. I’m sure it’s nothing. Perhaps your future self felt that you’re on the right track. I’m sure you’ll be fine.
I was bitter the first time I watched the high school kids go through this ritual. I never said a word, which was probably a smart decision on my part, because I silently twisted my colleagues’ platitudes into something negative, something awful, inside my own head.
It’s something. We all know it’s something. Your future self hates you or maybe – probably – you’re dead.
I have thought all those things over the years, depending on my life. Through a checkered college career, an education degree, a marriage, two children, a divorce, one brand new grandchild. I have believed all kinds of different things.
At thirty-five, when my hopeful young self thought I’d be retiring from pro ball, I stopped being a gym teacher and became a full-time counselor. A full-time counselor and occasional coach.
I told myself I didn’t mind.
I even wondered what would I write if I had the chance to play in the Bigs? Stay the course? That seems to be the most common letter in those red envelopes. It might be longer than that, but it always boils down to those three words.
Stay the course.
Only I hated the course. I wonder: would I have blown my knee out in the Bigs? Would I have made the Bigs? Would I have received the kind of expensive nanosurgery that would have kept my career alive? Or would I have washed out worse than I ever had?
Dreams are tricky things.
Tricky and delicate and easily destroyed.
And now I faced three shattered dreamers, standing beside me on the edge of the podium.
“To my office,” I say to the three of them.
They’re so shell-shocked that they comply.
I try to remember what I know about the boys. Esteban Rellier and J.J. Feniman. J.J. stands for … Jason Jacob. I remembered only because the names were so very old-fashioned, and J.J. was the epitome of modern cool.
If you had to choose which students would succeed based on personality and charm, not on Red Letters and opportunity, you would choose J.J.
You would choose Esteban with a caveat. He would have to apply himself.
If you had to pick anyone in class who wouldn’t write a letter to herself, you would pick Carla. Too much of a loner. Too prickly. Too difficult. I shouldn’t have been surprised that she’s coming with me.
But I am.
Because it’s never the ones you suspect who fail to get a letter.
It’s always the ones you believe in, the ones you have hopes for.
And somehow – now – it’s my job to keep those hopes alive.
* * *
I am prepared for this moment. I’m not a fan of interactive technology – feeds scrolling across the eye, scans on the palm of the hand – but I use it on Red Letter Day more than any other time during the year.
As we walk down the wide hallway to the administrative offices, I learn everything the school knows about all three students which, honestly, isn’t much.
Psych evaluations – including modified IQ tests – from grade school on. Addresses. Parental income and employment. Extracurriculars. Grades. Troubles (if any reported). Detentions. Citations. Awards.
I already know a lot about J.J. already. Homecoming king, quarterback, would’ve been class president if he hadn’t turned the role down. So handsome he even has his own stalker, a girl named Lizbet Cholene, whom I’ve had to discipline twice before sending to a special psych unit for evaluation.
I have to check on Esteban. He’s above average, but only in the subjects that interest him. His IQ tested high on both the old exam and the new. He has unrealized potential, and has never really been challenged, partly because he doesn’t seem to be the academic type.
It’s Carla who is still the enigma. IQ higher than either boy’s. Grades lower. No detentions, citations, or academic awards. Only the postings in cross-country – continual wins, all state three years in a row, potential offers from colleges, if she brought her grades up, which she never did. Nothing on the parents. Address in a middle-class neighborhood, smack in the center of town.
I cannot figure her out in a three-minute walk, even though I try.
I usher them into my office. It’s large and comfortable. Big desk, upholstered chairs, real plants, and a view of the track – which probably isn’t the best thing right now, at least for Carla.
I have a speech that I give. I try not to make it sound canned.
“Your binders were empty, weren’t they?” I say.
To my surprise, Carla’s lower lip quivers. I thought she’d tough it out, but the tears are close to the surface. Esteban’s nose turns red and he bows his head. Carla’s distress makes it hard for him to control his.
J.J. leans against the wall, arms folded. His handsome face is a mask. I realize then how often I’d seen that look on his face. Not quite blank – a little pleasant – but detached, far away. He braces one foot on the wall, which is going to leave a mark, but I don’t call him on that. I just let him lean.
“On my Red Letter Day,” I say, “I didn’t get a letter either.”
They look at me in surprise. Adults aren’t supposed to discuss their letters with kids. Or their lack of letters. Even if I had been able to discuss it, I wouldn’t have.
I’ve learned over the years that this moment is the crucial one, the moment when they realize that you will survive the lack of a letter.
“Do you know why?” Carla asks, her voice raspy.
I shake my head. “Believe me, I’ve wondered. I’ve made up every scenario in my head – maybe I died before it was time to write the letter—”
“But you’re older than that now, right?” J.J. asks, with something of an angry edge. “You wrote the letter this time, right?”
“I’m eligible to write the letter in two weeks,” I say. “I plan to do it.”
His cheeks redden, and for the first time, I see how vulnerable he is beneath the surface. He’s as devastated – maybe more devastated – than Carla and Esteban. Like me, J.J. believed he would get the letter he deserved – something that told him about his wonderful, successful, very rich life.
“So you could still die before you write it,” he said, and this time, I’m certain he meant the comment to hurt.
It did. But I don’t let that emotion show on my face. “I could,” I say. “But I’ve lived for thirty-two years without a letter. Thirty-two years without a clue about what my future holds. Like people used to live before time travel. Before Red Letter Day.”
I have their attention now.
“I think we’re the lucky ones,” I say, and because I’ve established that I’m part of their group, I don’t sound patronizing. I’ve given this speech for nearly two decades, and previous students have told me that this part of the speech is the most important part.
Carla’s gaze meets mine, sad, frightened and hopeful. Esteban keeps his head down. J.J.’s eyes have narrowed. I can feel his anger now, as if it’s my fault that he didn’t get a letter.
“Lucky?” he asks in the same tone that he used when he reminded me I could still die.
“Lucky,” I say. “We’re not locked into a future.”
Esteban looks up now, a frown creasing his forehead.
“Out in the gym,” I say, “some of the counselors are dealing with students who’re getting two different kinds of tough letters. The first tough one is the one that warns you not to do something on such and so date or you’ll screw up your life forever.”
“People actually get those?” Esteban asks, breathlessly.
“Every year,” I say.
“What’s the other tough letter?” Carla’s voice trembles. She speaks so softly I had to strain to hear her.
“The one that says You can do better than I did, but won’t – can’t really – explain exactly what went wrong. We’re limited to one event, and if what went wrong was a cascading series of bad choices, we can’t explain that. We just have to hope that our past selves – you guys, in other words – will make the right choices, with a warning.”
J.J.’s frowning too. “What do you mean?”
“Imagine,” I say, “instead of getting no letter, you get a letter that tells you that none of your dreams come true. The letter tells you simply that you’ll have to accept what’s coming because there’s no changing it.”
“I wouldn’t believe it,” he says.
And I agree: he wouldn’t believe it. Not at first. But those wormy little bits of doubt would burrow in and affect every single thing he does from this moment on.
“Really?” I say. “Are you the kind of person who would lie to yourself in an attempt to destroy who you are now? Trying to destroy every bit of hope that you possess?”
His flush grows deeper. Of course he isn’t. He lies to himself – we all do – but he lies to himself about how great he is, how few flaws he has. When Lizbet started following him around, I brought him into my office and asked him not to pay attention to her.
It leads her on, I say.
I don’t think it does, he says. She knows I’m not interested.
He knew he wasn’t interested. Poor Lizbet had no idea at all.
I can see her outside now, hovering in the hallway, waiting for him, wanting to know what his letter said. She’s holding her red envelope in one hand, the other lost in the pocket of her baggy skirt. She looks prettier than usual, as if she’s dressed up for this day, maybe for the inevitable party.
Every year, some idiot plans a Red Letter Day party even though the school – the culture – recommends against it. Every year, the kids who get good letters go. And the other kids beg off, or go for a short time, and lie about what they received.
Lizbet probably wants to know if he’s going to go.
I wonder what he’ll say to her.
“Maybe you wouldn’t send a letter if the truth hurt too much,” Esteban says.
And so it begins, the doubts, the fears.
“Or,” I say, “if your successes are beyond your wild imaginings. Why let yourself expect that? Everything you do might freeze you, might lead you to wonder if you’re going to screw that up.”
They’re all looking at me again.
“Believe me,” I say. “I’ve thought of every single possibility, and they’re all wrong.”
The door to my office opens and I curse silently. I want them to concentrate on what I just said, not on someone barging in on us.
Lizbet has come in. She looks like she’s on edge, but then she’s always on edge around J.J.
“I want to talk to you, J.J.” Her voice shakes.
“Not now,” he says. “In a minute.”
“Now,” she says. I’ve never heard this tone from her. Strong and scary at the same time.
“Lizbet,” J.J. says, and it’s clear he’s tired, he’s overwhelmed, he’s had enough of this day, this event, this girl, this school – he’s not built to cope with something he considers a failure. “I’m busy.”
“You’re not going to marry me,” she says.
“Of course not,” he snaps – and that’s when I know it. Why all four of us don’t get letters, why I didn’t get a letter, even though I’m two weeks shy from my fiftieth birthday and fully intend to send something to my poor past self.
Lizbet holds her envelope in one hand, and a small plastic automatic in the other. An illegal gun, one that no one should be able to get – not a student, not an adult. No one.
“Get down!” I shout as I launch myself toward Lizbet.
She’s already firing, but not at me. At J.J. who hasn’t gotten down.
But Esteban deliberately drops and Carla – Carla’s half a step behind me, launching herself as well.
Together we tackle Lizbet, and I pry the pistol from her hands. Carla and I hold her as people come running from all directions, some adults, some kids holding letters.
Everyone gathers. We have no handcuffs, but someone finds rope. Someone else has contacted emergency services, using the emergency link that we all have, that we all should have used, that I should have used, that I probably had used in another life, in another universe, one in which I didn’t write a letter. I probably contacted emergency services and said something placating to Lizbet, and she probably shot all four of us, instead of poor J.J.
J.J., who is motionless on the floor, his blood slowly pooling around him. The football coach is trying to stop the bleeding and someone I don’t recognize is helping and there’s nothing I can do, not at the moment, they’re doing it all while we wait for emergency services.
The security guard ties up Lizbet and sets the gun on the desk and we all stare at it, and Annie Sanderson, the English teacher, says to the guard, “You’re supposed to check everyone, today of all days. That’s why we hired you.”
And the principal admonishes her, tiredly, and she shuts up. Because we know that sometimes Red Letter Day causes this, that’s why it’s held in school, to stop family annihilations and shootings of best friends and employers. Schools, we’re told, can control weaponry and violence, even though they can’t, and someone, somewhere, will use this as a reason to repeal Red Letter Day, but all those people who got good letters or letters warning them about their horrible drunken mistake will prevent any change, and everyone – the pundits, the politicians, the parents – will say that’s good.
Except J.J.’s parents, who have no idea their son had no future. When did he lose it? The day he met Lizbet? The day he didn’t listen to me about how crazy she was? A few moments ago, when he didn’t dive for the floor?
I will never know.
But I do something I would never normally do. I grab Lizbet’s envelope, and I open it.
The handwriting is spidery, shaky.
Give it up. J.J. doesn’t love you. He’ll never love you. Just walk away and pretend that he doesn’t exist. Live a better life than I have. Throw the gun away.
Throw the gun away.
She did this before, just like I thought.
And I wonder: was the letter different this time? And if it was, how different? Throw the gun away. Is that line new or old? Has she ignored this sentence before?
My brain hurts. My head hurts.
My heart hurts.
I was angry at J.J. just a few moments ago, and now he’s dead.
He’s dead and I’m not.
Carla isn’t either.
Neither is Esteban.
I touch them both and motion them close. Carla seems calmer, but Esteban is blank – shock, I think. A spray of blood covers the left side of his face and shirt.
I show them the letter, even though I’m not supposed to.
“Maybe this is why we never got our letters,” I say. “Maybe today is different than it was before. We survived, after all.”
I don’t know if they understand. I’m not sure I care if they understand.
I’m not even sure if I understand.
I sit in my office and watch the emergency services people flow in, declare J.J. dead, take Lizbet away, set the rest of us aside for interrogation. I hand someone – one of the police officers – Lizbet’s red envelope, but I don’t tell him we looked.
I have a hunch he knows we did.
The events wash past me, and I think that maybe this is my last Red Letter Day at Barack Obama High School, even if I survive the next two weeks and turn fifty.
And I find myself wondering, as I sit on my desk waiting to make my statement, whether I’ll write my own red letter after all.
What can I say that I’ll listen to? Words are so very easy to misunderstand. Or misread.
I suspect Lizbet only read the first few lines. Her brain shut off long before she got to Walk away and Throw away the gun.
Maybe she didn’t write that the first time. Or maybe she’s been writing it, hopelessly, to herself in a continual loop, lifetime after lifetime after lifetime.
I don’t know.
I’ll never know.
None of us will know.
That’s what makes Red Letter Day such a joke. Is it the letter that keeps us on the straight and narrow? Or the lack of a letter that gives us our edge?
Do I write a letter, warning myself to make sure Lizbet gets help when I meet her? Or do I tell myself to go to the draft no matter what? Will that prevent this afternoon?
I don’t know.
I’ll never know.
Maybe Father Broussard was right; maybe God designed us to be ignorant of the future. Maybe He wants us to move forward in time, unaware of what’s ahead, so that we follow our instincts, make our first, best – and only – choice.
Or maybe the letters mean nothing at all. Maybe all this focus on a single day and a single note from a future self is as meaningless as this year’s celebration of the Fourth of July. Just a day like any other, only we add a ceremony and call it important.
I don’t know.
I’ll never know.
Not if I live two more weeks or two more years.
Either way, J.J. will still be dead and Lizbet will be alive, and my future – whatever it is – will be the mystery it always was.
The mystery it should be.
The mystery it will always be.